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Mindfully Embracing the Unexpected: Advice from a Zen Teacher with Flint Sparks (Episode #143)

If you or someone you know is struggling with a complexity that seems irrevocably stuck, our guest today—Flint Sparks—will point you in some new directions. He’s been a professional psychotherapist for four decades, and he is also a Zen teacher: a wonderful combination that brings a level of timeless wisdom to the table that adds a path to freedom we may not find any other way. 

Episode Highlights

About Our Guest:

Flint Sparks is a teacher of possibility. By helping us see things anew, he has a way of validating our best impulses and releasing us from the tyranny of our worst. 

Flint’s academic training began with graduate degrees in both biology and psychology. He has extensive postdoctoral training in mindfulness based psychotherapies and group therapy with specialty training in both the Hakomi Method and Internal Family Systems Model. His traditional Zen training began at the San Francisco Zen Center and continued at the Austin Zen Center which he founded and nourished in its early years. Currently he is a resident teacher at Appamada, a center for Zen practice and inquiry in Austin, Texas.

Today, Flint’s teaching and consulting bridge the fields of mental health psychology, the psychology of contemplative practices, and traditional Zen Buddhist practice. 

His early research and counseling experience with the terminally ill inspired him to continue investigating the influence of consciousness in physical healing and emotional well-being. In response to witnessing the difficult struggles of both patients and family members dealing with chronic illness and death, he began to search for spiritual practices which would support and deepen his psychological work. 

This led him to an ever deepening commitment to Buddhist teachings and practices. Together, these two primary areas of interest—healthy human development and contemplative spiritual practices—form the complementary strands of the double-helix of full human maturity. These are the ongoing practices of growing up and waking up.

Most of us know that we are on that unending path of growing up and waking up. Every time our self-awareness grows, we have an expanded sense of potential just waiting for us around the corner. Flint makes being wrong feel like a gift from the insights revealed. With every great life lesson, we are able to shed some beliefs that were holding us back as we step into a completely new future. 

His tagline is “Softening Barriers to Love,” a beautiful sentiment. 

Oh, the many articles we’ve written about innovators who loved a great problem so much that they’ve solved it. And the thought leaders who are leading with love instead of fear, so that the barriers to understanding are reduced to mere bumps in the road. And all the love we’ve seen applied to deep thinking that eventually leads to fresh questions that have the power to hurdle us over division and bring people together around solutions that make sense for us all. 

Yes, Flint’s way in the world seems almost magical, as he helps us solve our quandaries by leading outward from a place of love, and then arriving back to that place with a heart that is more full than ever. 

Fear (the place from which we all make many decisions) is almost never in the picture when Flint’s energy is filling the room. 

He speaks to common dilemmas like wondering if there is something we are meant to do: if we should find our “calling.” He suggests we respect the mysteries in life rather than always trying to find the answers. In our problem relationships, he quietly asks, “Do you want to be right? Or do you want to solve the problem and restore the intimacy in the relationship? It will take some work… “

As to the roadblocks there, If you want to know what they are, look at your life? What are you choosing? Hmmm.. that question has stuck with me. 

And we’re going to learn all about that in today’s conversation. 

Show Notes

00:00 Intro & Welcome

02:13 Spiritual Maturity

  • Flint spent many years as a psychotherapist and is now a Zen teacher.
  • Flint leads retreats all across North America and Europe
  • Flint’s tagline is ‘Softening Barriers to Love’.

06:28 Growing Up and Waking Up

  • Social and cultural evolution happened much faster than biological evolution.
  • We are out of sync in some ways.
  • Spiritual growth allows us to meet everyday mundane things with greater intimacy and courage.
  • Spiritual maturity has nothing to do with a belief in anything.
  • Spiritual maturity is endless curiosity and willingness to turn toward everything.
  • Maturing ourselves as human beings never really ends.
  • True meditation is letting go of all the ways that we manipulate ourselves.

12:56 The Ground of Being

  • The ground of being is unconditioned good in the midst of the joys of the greatest moments and also in the last minutes as you pass away,
  • Happiness is found by removing the conditions for being happy.
  • The foundation to anchoring ourselves comes from steady practice.
  • Practice is preparation to do the real thing.
  • The real thing that we are practicing for is life.
  • The practice must be grounded in reality.

16:41 The Ground of Being

  • Dr Srikumar Rao appeared on Episode 5 of The Conspiracy of Goodness Podcast and spoke about the concept of ‘good thing / bad thing’.
  • The ‘good thing / bad thing’ concept speaks to the way we label occurrences as either good or bad based on our perception.
  • Flint agrees with this concept and encourages us to consider saying ‘now this’ rather than labeling something as good or bad.
  • Flint compares spiritual practice to jazz musicianship.
  • Jazz musicians play boring scales over and over again for many years.
  • When jazz musicians play they are able to apply what they practiced without much conscious effort.
  • We can also develop the same improvisational virtuosity as great jazz musicians by practicing spirituality more consistently.
  • We can develop the muscles to respond rather than react.

20:39 Break

23:40 What is Discipline?

  • According to Flint, discipline is  ‘remembering what you want’.
  • What is most important to you? What are you called to do?
  • If you want to know what your disciplines are, just look at your life and what you’re actually doing.
  • Waking up is about deciding if the things you do are the person you want to be.
  • What you are doing reflects what you want.

26:31 Tolerating Mystery

  • Mystery is the capacity to be open to the unknown and not demand answers to the unknown.
  • We can stay with questions longer and respect the mystery.
  • It’s not about belief, it’s about discovery.
  • We can learn from life without trying to make life our way.
  • Being okay with mystery is challenging to people.
  • A Tibetan teacher  Trungpa Rinpoche said the spiritual path is walking between hope and despair straight into the face of uncertainty.
  • The spiritual path feels like vulnerability in the human body.
  • Most people want to turn despair into hope.
  • The universal solvent for problem solving is curiosity.

31:22 Responsiveness vs. Perfection

  • Be wholehearted and continue with dignity.
  • Our ‘okayness’ isn’t on the line.
  • We have to be easier on ourselves.
  • The process to mastery is a pretty good walk.
  • We can appreciate our lives with all of its flaws and difficulties.

37:42 Going Fast

  • If you want to get somewhere fast, go slow.
  • In order to respond appropriately we need to be more attentive.
  • Spiritual practice helps us become more present and attentive.
  • We are made new in each moment.
  • Life is miraculous and full of awe even though it looks ordinary most of the time.

41:15 Digital Life Balance

  • The prefrontal cortex is sampling data to determine 3 things.
    1. Are you there?
    2. Do you see me?
    3. Do you choose me?
  • Mammals require a body so to know someone’s there, someone is listening to you and that someone loves you.
  • Good operating systems make it seem as though there is real human contact.
  • Our society escalates excitement over intimacy.

51:25 Experiencing Love

  • Peoples’ greatest longing and their greatest fear is the same – love.
  • Love gets expressed through simple things.
  • It’s easy to make things complicated but beautiful to make them simple.
  • Courage = Commitment + Doubt + Action
  • We can step into doubtful situations  with mindfulness and wholeheartedness.
  • Tell the truth of who you are.
  • Most people haven’t lived in environments where they’re safe enough to tell the truth about themselves.
  • People are managing rather than being authentic.

01:01:26 Curiosity is the Universal Solvent

  • If we can stay still and stay curious we can get new data to help us adjust.
  • Curiosity helps during whatever mood we’re in.
  • We can choose to always turn toward life rather than turning away from it.
  • People want to be happy with each other.
  • People who aren’t pleasant with each other are hurt or afraid.
  • We can choose to meet people who are hurt with curiosity rather than confrontation.

01:05:32 What Do You Wish People Knew?

  • Other people feel like you.
  • You’re not alone.
  • If people are struggling they’re hurting.
  • We’re optimizing the world for performance and not for intimacy or connection.
  • Elders are there to remind us about the connection between generations.
  • On Episode #141 of The Conspiracy of Goodness Podcast, Carl Honoré speaks about ageism and the potential of embracing all generations. 


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